CSA: From the Farm to Your Table

CSACommunity Supported Agriculture or Community Shared Agriculture (CSA) is a community of individuals or families who support a chosen farm and its family. Each individual or family purchases, in advance, a share, called a subscription, of the year’s crop. Thus, the customers become virtual partners or ‘co-producers’ in the farm, sharing risk and reward with the farm family. Throughout the growing season, each week subscribing member receives equal shares of the freshly harvested food from the farmer.


CSAs have their philosophical roots in the writings of Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner, who formulated his educational and agricultural theories in the 1920s. Most important among the theories was the association of producers and consumers, where the consumer and producer are linked by their mutual interests. Ideally, this leads to an economy where what is produced locally is consumed locally.

The actual CSA farms originated in a number of regions around the globe – consumers and farmers formed community farms in Chile under the regime of Salvatore Allende in the early 1970s. The Chilean co-op movement inspired a Swiss farmer to start a community-based farm; and in the 1960s German consumers versed in Steiner’s work were interested in founding an agriculture system that was ecologically sound and socially equitable. In Japan, mothers concerned about pesticide usage, the increase in imported food, and loss of arable land to encroachment by urban growth began similar subscription farming called teikei.

The idea spread to North America in 1986 with a farm in Oregon and another in New Hampshire; it has since spread inland from the coasts. According to the USDA’s 2007 agriculture census report, released in 2009, there are currently 12,549 CSAs in operating in the USA, although exact numbers are hard to establish as many CSAs maintain a low, strictly local profile.

CSAs in Canada

According to Equiterre, the Quebec-based non-profit organization that works on social and environmental issues, 8,300 Quebecois families receive weekly baskets from 78 family farms.

In Ontario, more than 150 CSAs are listed by region on the Ontario CSA farm directory.

British Columbia’s Farm Folk City Folk, a non-profit organization committed to supporting a local sustainable food system since 1993, lists 34 CSAs on its website.

Upwards of six CSAs are in existence in Saskatchewan, according to the Saskatchewan Organic Directorate and several credible food writers in the province.

Atlantic Canada Organic Regional Network, a non-profit organic food organization founded in 2000, lists fewer than 10 CSAs on its website.

At last count, 15 farms offer a CSA subscription in Alberta. This is a 500 per cent increase from three CSAs in 2008. Thus, most of the CSAs now in existence in Alberta have existed for fewer than three years.

It is important to remember that actual CSA numbers are in all likelihood higher than cited; as noted elsewhere in this report, CSAs tend to exist below-radar.

Best Practises & Quality

As a result of its geographic origins in Germany and Switzerland, many CSAs are farmed according to Steiner’s biodynamic principles (see Appendix C details on Biodynamics). The majority of CSAs honour their origins and practice organic (certified or not) or holistic, ecologically-aware tillage and humane animal-tending methods. Two Albertan CSAs use animals – draft horse or oxen – to provide power instead of tractors. In most cases, animals are free-range or pastured.

Membership Rates & Variants

Farmers following CSA practices sell annual subscriptions to a set number of clients before the onset of spring. In nearly all cases, the previous year’s clients are offered first refusal before new clients are solicited.

Share prices are consistent across the province. Full shares are suitable for a family of four and cost $500 to $600. Some farms offer half shares, suitable for two to three people, for slightly more money than half the cost of a full share ($300 to $350).

The number of subscriptions each farm offers varies widely. Some farms support as few as four families, while others support as many as 200. The provincial average is 40 to 50 families.

Some CSAs offer protein options, such as eggs or meat, which are available for an additional charge at time of enlistment.

Some CSA farms offer a reduced-rate membership for those who wish to regularly work on the farm – seeding, weeding, hoeing, watering, harvesting, fencing, building, and maintaining structures like greenhouses and packing sheds. Familiarizing subscribers to the farm is an underlying theme, but it takes a lot of planning and energy to organize and educate urban helpers.

Source: Alberta Agriculture

Find a CSA farm near you: Community Supported Agriculture in Alberta